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Discussion Module

Notes from the Midnight Driver
by
Jordan Sonnenblick

Publishing Information: Scholastic Press: New York, 2006
ISBN: 0439757797
Pages
: 272 p.
Ages: 13 & Up

Summary:
After being assigned to perform community service at a nursing home, 16-year-old Alex befriends a cantankerous old man who has some lesson to impart about jazz guitar playing, love, and forgiveness. (from the book)

Book Talk:
This is a story of Alex Gregory, his jazz guitar, his best friend Laurie, an angry judge, and a feisty old man dying of emphysema, and how the combination changes all of them.

It sounded like a good plan when I thought of it, even brilliant. I'd drink one more pint of Dad's vodka, swipe my mother's car keys and drive over to my dad's house and tell him what I thought of his getting it on with my third grade teacher and breaking up with my mom. 

But I was more smashed than I thought I was, and I ended up in the middle of Mrs. Wilson's lawn, with the lawn gnome I'd just decapitated. Mom wasn't happy to have her first date since Dad moved out interrupted to bail me out, the cops who arrested me weren't happy about the fact that I threw up all over them, and my best friend Laurie wasn't happy with me because I hadn't called so she could talk me out of doing such a dumb thing. But what really reeked was the fact that the judge absolutely hated drunk drivers, especially when they weren't willing to admit they'd done something wrong-and I wasn't. I mean I hadn't hurt anyone-it was just a lawn gnome, for crying out loud!  But she sentenced me to a hundred hours of community service, anyway, and told me I had to pay to have the lawn gnome replaced and the car fixed. 

I was supposed to go to this old folks home and talk to one of the men who lived there, like make friends with him or something. But the guy my mom picked out for me to visit was the meanest guy I've ever met! His name was Solomon Lewis, and he looked like an ancient, merciless old gargoyle, and was rude, angry, and verbally abusive.  I tried every way I could to get out of the gig, but it was impossible. The judge was determined to make me serve each and every hour of my sentence with him. She wanted me to learn from him, and him to learn from me.  Never mind that we didn't have anything in common, and he was bitter, old, and got his kicks from taunting the other residents. We still had to spend a hundred hours together.  --This booktalk was written by university professor, librarian, and booktalking expert Joni Richards Bodart. (http://content.scholastic.com/browse/collateral.jsp?id=1438)

Subject Headings & Major Themes:

Community Service
Family Problems
Guitars
Friendship
Intergenerational Stories
Juvenile Justice System
Musicians
Nursing Homes
Self-Perception
Senior Citizens

Awards & Reviews:
While his mother is out on a first date, 16-year-old Alex decides to get drunk, steal her car, and drive to his father's home, hoping to catch him romancing one of Alex's former teachers. His goal? Revenge. Reality? A damaged car, a decapitated gnome, a drunk driving charge, and community service. He is ordered to serve his 100 hours visiting Solomon Lewis, the meanest, crankiest resident at Egbert P. Johnson Memorial Home for the Aged. Alex discovers that Solomon is also witty, intelligent, and a fighter--an old man who has lived all the joys, sorrows, and regrets of a long life. Sonnenblick has created a memorable cast of characters: acerbic Sol, a former famous jazz guitarist who is now dying of emphysema; narrator Alex, a budding guitarist with a tendency to make excuses rather than assume responsibility; and Alex's best friend Laurie, a tiny, pixielike karate master whom Sol refers to as Alex's «wife.» Even minor characters, such as Alex's parents and the judge, take on a heft and weight uncommon in YA literature, and teens will easily connect with Alex's epiphanies: «You can't just throw someone out of your life when they displease you,» and, «We're all free to choose some people to love, and then do it.» It all adds up to a funny, bittersweet tour de force. -- Frances Bradburn
Booklist, October 1, 2006, p52 (Starred Review)

Sonnenblick deftly infiltrates the teenage mind to produce a first-person narrative riddled with enough hapless confusion, mulish equivocation, and beleaguered deadpan humor to have readers nodding with recognition, sighing in sympathy, and gasping with laughter -- often on the same page.
Horn Book (Starred Review)

Sonnenblick revisits several key themes from his debut novel, Drums, Girls & Dangerous Pie, to even greater effect here. Narrator Alex Gregory starts off by describing his maiden drinking episode: getting drunk alone, hijacking his mother's car in order to drive to his father's house and give the man a piece of his mind (his parents are separated), and taking an unplanned detour into a neighbor's yard, destroying a lawn gnome. What begins as humor takes on darker implications as the book progresses. Not because Alex has a drinking problem (he never takes another sip in the course of the book), but because of a drunk driver's impact on Sol Lewis, the resident of a nursing home to whom Alex is assigned by Judge J. Trent as part of his community service for his crime. Like Steven's Annette in Drums, Alex's female best friend, Laurie, sticks by him throughout this challenging time. And Sol, who starts out crotchety, turns out to be much wiser below the surface, and far more complicated. He even suggests to Alex that there may be more to the teen's relationship with Laurie than friendship. The bond that guitar-playing forges between Alex and Sol serves not only to make them peers musically, but also personally, allowing Sol to reveal his own past. While readers may figure out the significance of Alex's judge to the broader story before the hero does, they will likely find the ending no less satisfying. Ages 12-up.
Publishers Weekly, September 18, 2006, p55 (Starred Review)

Gr 8 Up: After drinking some vodka and taking his mom's car for a spin to his father's girlfriend's house, who just happens to be his former third-grade teacher, 16-year-old Alex Gregory finds himself on his neighbors' lawn with police yelling at him and a broken gnome under his car. It is hard to believe that Alex would do anything like this; most of the time he hangs out with his friend Laurie, a sassy petite karate expert, and plays guitar in the school jazz band. He is also trying to get over his parents' recent split. For drinking and driving, Alex is sentenced to 100 hours of community service at a nursing home with Solomon Lewis. Sol is a difficult, crotchety, eccentric old man with emphysema who lashes out at Alex in strange Yiddish phrases. Soon Alex grows found of Sol, who teaches him something about the guitar, respecting the elderly, and taking responsibility for his actions. Alex's voice is fresh and funny, but doesn't downplay the serious situations. The other characters in the book are well defined and add interesting touches to the story. Fans of Sonnenblick's Drums, Girls & Dangerous Pie (2004) will be pleased with this follow-up book in which Steven and Annette make a few brief appearances. --Shannon Seglin, Chantilly Regional Library, Fairfax County, VA
School Library Journal, October 2006, p173

Sonnenblick's sophomore effort opens with Alex, a 16-year-old guitar-playing wise guy drunkenly crashing his mom's car into a neighbor's lawn gnome. Alex is immediately arrested for underage DUI, and is sentenced, by a Judge Judy no less, to do community-service time in a nursing home. There he must keep company with belligerent, emphysema-ridden, raspy senior citizen Sol Lewis, who takes nothing but pleasure in torturing his young caregiver. Not surprisingly, the two grow closer and closer as the days wear on. Alex gives Sol companionship; Sol gives Alex advice on guitar playing, getting girls and pretty much any other teen problem he might have—each of which wrap up way too neatly in the end. Sonnenblick injects this overused, stale plotline, some of which seems to be repeated from his debut, with an upbeat, punchy style that is both funny and contemporary. It all feels too heartwarming to be true, but his fresh, unique insight into the teen voice will keep the readers chuckling and the pages turning.
Kirkus Reviews, September 15, 2006

Discussion Questions and Ideas:

  1. The description of what happens when Alex drinks and drives is very humorous. Why do you think the author began the story this way?
  2. Have you ever felt as angry and upset as Alex was at the beginning of the book?
  3. During the novel, we get to hear Alex's point of view through his letters to the judge. At what point do his feelings about Sol start to shift?
  4. Music plays a big part in the story. If you're not a musician, can you still appreciate the story?
  5. Alex and his best friend Laurie are going through similar situations at home. Which character did you identify with more, Alex or Laurie?

Related Websites:
Jordan Sonnenblick's Web Site - http://www.jordansonnenblick.com

Feinstein Community Service Center - https://www.jwu.edu/content.aspx?id=8798

Juvenile Justice System - http://www.juvenilejusticefyi.com

Rhode Island Office of the Child Advocate - http://www.child-advocate.ri.gov/index.php

Read-a-Likes:
Defiance by Valerie Hobbs, 2005
Fastback Beach by Shirlee Smith Matheson, 2003
Hero by S.L. Rottman, 1997
Hit the Road by Caroline B. Cooney, 2005
Love and Other Four-Letter Words by Carolyn Mackler, 2000
McKendree by Sandra Belton, 2000
Nobody's There by Joan Lowery Nixon, 2000
On the Run by Michael Coleman, 2004
Peaches by Jodi Lynn Anderson, 2005
Pepperland by Mark Delaney, 2004

Touching Spirit Bear by Ben Mikaelsen, 1999

Other Books by the Author:
Drums, Girls & Dangerous Pie, 2004

About the Author:
Born:  July  4, 1969 / Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri
Current Home:  Bethlehem, Pennsylvania

In his remarkable debut, Drums, Girls & Dangerous Pie, Jordan Sonnenblick demonstrates a mastery of storytelling and true understanding of what families go through when a sibling is diagnosed with cancer. No treacle, no purple prose, no self-consciousness. Just plain old great stuff that lives in your heart for a long time after you're done.

When asked whether he had always wanted to be a writer, Jordan answers, "When I was three years old, my best friend, B.J., told me that he planned to cure cancer when he grew up. He asked me what I wanted to do, and I said, 'Write a book.' Now he is a doctor who specializes in laboratory cancer research and I'm a writer."

In addition to rave reviews and accolades, Drums, Girls & Dangerous Pie has been nominated for the American Library Association's Best Books for Young Adults list, named a Booksense recommendation for young adults, and sold translation rights-pre-publication-in numerous countries around the world.

Jordan is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and a former Teach for America corps member. He loves teaching middle school English because his students inspire him every single day. Plus, as Jordan says, it's pretty much the only job that pays you to hang out and read with people you like. For fun, he likes to play and collect way too many musical instruments. He lives with his very supportive wife and two remarkably amusing children in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. You can find out more about him and his work at www.jordansonnenblick.com. (Author Information from www.scholastic.com)

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